Biology

"Hidden history" of labor suggests prehistoric women would outmuscle today's elite rowers

Who would win an arm wrestle? A modern day elite female rower, or females who toiled away on ancient farmlands?
Who would win an arm wrestle? A modern day elite female rower, or females who toiled away on ancient farmlands?
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Who would win an arm wrestle? A modern day elite female rower, or females who toiled away on ancient farmlands?
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Who would win an arm wrestle? A modern day elite female rower, or females who toiled away on ancient farmlands?

New research looking at the bone strength of European women living through the first 6,000 years of farming suggests they had quite the work ethic. So much so, their arms may have been stronger than today's elite rowers, with scientists claiming their findings point to a "hidden history" of physically demanding manual labor by women.

In looking to learn more about how ancient societies behaved, scientists have investigated the bone structure of women, but this was always done by comparing them directly with men. And because stress is more visible in male bones than female's, scientists at Cambridge University say that we may have been underestimating the kinds of strain women were putting themselves under.

"This is the first study to actually compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women," says Dr Alison Macintosh, lead author of the new study published today. "By interpreting women's bones in a female-specific context we can start to see how intensive, variable and laborious their behaviors were, hinting at a hidden history of women's work over thousands of years."

Macintosh and her team did this by using CT scans of leg and arm bones from women in the early Neolithic agricultural era (around 7,000 years ago), through to the farming communities of the Middle Ages (from 1,500 to around 500 years ago). These scans were then compared to those of an elite, record-breaking female rowing team from Cambridge University.

The team found that while the strength of the leg bones was similar to that of the elite rowers, the ancient arm bones were actually 11 to 16 percent stronger, and almost 30 percent stronger than a typical Cambridge student. Bronze Age women from around 4,000 years ago had arms bones that were 9 to 13 percent stronger than the rowers.

"We can't say specifically what behaviours were causing the bone loading we found," says Macintosh. "However, a major activity in early agriculture was converting grain into flour, and this was likely performed by women. For millennia, grain would have been ground by hand between two large stones called a saddle quern. In the few remaining societies that still use saddle querns, women grind grain for up to five hours a day. The repetitive arm action of grinding these stones together for hours may have loaded women's arm bones in a similar way to the laborious back-and-forth motion of rowing."

But Macintosh says it's unlikely that female labor was limited to this one task. Manual planting, tilling and harvesting were probably part of the workload, as were things like fetching food and water for livestock, processing milk and turning hides and wool into textiles.

"It can be easy to forget that bone is a living tissue, one that responds to the rigors we put our bodies through," Macintosh says. "Physical impact and muscle activity both put strain on bone, called loading. The bone reacts by changing in shape, curvature, thickness and density over time to accommodate repeated strain. By analyzing the bone characteristics of living people whose regular physical exertion is known, and comparing them to the characteristics of ancient bones, we can start to interpret the kinds of labor our ancestors were performing in prehistory."

The research was published in the journal Science Advances, and you can hear from Macintosh in the video below.

Source: University of Cambridge

Prehistoric women’s manual work was tougher than rowing in today’s elite boat crews

4 comments
Riaanh
To be expected, even today in Africa alot of the farming activity is done by woman, including the grinding of the grain.
Rich47
Picky, I know, but the power of a sliding-seat rower comes not just from arms, but from back and lower limbs as well, so the ancients would have a hard time beating the trained modern ladies at their sport, even if they could grind rings around them.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Ectomorphs have an overdeveloped ectoderm, which is skin and bone. In fact, people call them "skin and bone". Mesomorphs have an over developed mesoderm, which is skeletal muscle and connective tissue. They may be fairly light boned, as in many body builders and gymnasts. One can even see the light bones curved under the load of the muscle.
Nik
In the far east, there were female road building gangs, still in existence in the 60's. Those women were carting stone in baskets on their heads all day, as well as pounding them into place, manually. I met a couple, and they were STRONG, solid, females, but still had femininity of a sort. I would guess that wherever women do hard physical work all day every day, they will be far more muscular than those who do some rowing part time, over a limited period. So it should not be surprising that women in the past were more muscular than part-time athletes in the present day.